Released: 4 May 1990
Director: John Harrison
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $3.5 million
Stars: Deborah Harry, Matthew Lawrence, Steve Buscemi, Christian Slater, William Hickey, David Johansen, James Remar, and Rae Dawn Chong
Timmy (Lawrence) has been imprisoned by a suburban witch (Harry) who plans to cook and eat him; his only hope is to stall her with three stories from a horror book that depict a graduate student who uses a mummy to avenge himself on those who have wronged him, a wealthy old man who hires a hitman to kill a cat he believes is haunting him, and a struggling artist who finds fame and fortune but at terrible cost!
In 1982, the grandfather of zombie horror himself, George A. Romero, joined forces with my favourite writer of all time, Stephen King, to write and direct Creepshow (Romero, 1982), a horror anthology movie that won over critics with its blend of comedy and horror, becoming a cult classic in the process. Having grossed $21 million against an $8 million budget, Creepshow was successful enough to raise interest in a potential television series; however, distribution issues led to Laurel Entertainment (Creepshow’s producers) opting to create the similar show, Tales from the Darkside, instead. Following a pilot episode in 1983, Tales from the Darkside ran for four seasons and produced eighty-nine official episodes between 1984 and 1988, and featured works or adaptations from the likes of Stephen King and Clive Barker. Since the show had also achieved cult status, and given that horror and sci-fi anthologies were still relatively popular back in the late-eighties and early-nineties, its perhaps not too surprising that the show was succeeded by a big-screen feature film. Largely regarded as the true successor to Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie’s $16.3 million gross made it a modest success. Reviews were mixed, however, and plans for a sequel were scrapped and writer Joe Hill was equally unsuccessful when he tried to get a reboot off the ground.
Since Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is an anthology film compiled of a framing narrative and three short horror stories, it only makes sense to review each one individually and then discuss the overall film, so this review will be structured a little differently from my usual ones.
The film’s framing narrative, “The Wraparound Story”, is easily the weakest part of the film, though even this has its simple charms; Betty is an affluent suburban housewife whose pleasant and polite demeanour hides the amusingly horrific truth that she is actually a witch. Some time prior to the film, she kidnapped young Timmy and has had him chained up in a dungeon in her kitchen, where she has been feeding him cookies and other snacks to fatten him up for a big dinner party for her other friends (presumably also witches). Although Timmy desperately cries for help, Betty nonchalantly prepares her oven and her evisceration implements; desperate to delay his impending death, Timmy reads her stories from her favourite childhood book, Tales from the Darkside. Once each of the short films has finished, Timmy continues to read from the book and, thanks to Betty’s fondness for the stories and her desire to hear a love story, she is suitably distracted but remains undeterred in her wish to gut him and cook him. Thankfully, Timmy’s efforts buy him the time to think of an escape plan and, as Betty moves to get him, he tosses some marbles onto the floor that cause her to slip and impale herself on her own butcher’s block! Timmy then frees himself, shoves her into the oven originally meant for him, and rewards himself with a well-deserved cookie.
The first story, “Lot 249”, is an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story of the same name; the short follows two rich college students, Andy Smith (Slater) and his best friend Lee Monkton (Robert Sedgwick), who is not only dating Andy’s sister, Susan (Julianne Moore), but has also succeeded in conning the administration into awarding him an all-expenses trip to Europe thanks to Susan writing his scholarship proposal for him. While Andy disapproves of Lee’s moral deception, it is of particular aggravation to Edward Bellingham (Buscemi), a much poorer student who pays his way through college by selling antiquities and other artefacts. Though friendly enough with Andy, who lives in dormitory above him, Bellingham’s introduction to Lee is met with tension; still, Bellingham delights in showing them his latest acquisition, the titular Lot 249, which he believes will make up for him being cheated out of the scholarship by an anonymous tip accusing him of theft. Lot 249 is a massive sarcophagus that contains a dried out, ancient mummy with a scroll in its stomach which, despite his claims to the contrary, Bellingham is fully capable of reading. Aware that Lee screwed him out of his scholarship, Bellingham wastes no time in reading from the scroll to bring the mummy to unlife and promptly sending it after Lee. The rich jock is completely blindsided by the superhumanly strong mummy, who violently pulls Lee’s brains out through his nose and leaves them in a fruit bowl. Susan has little time to process Lee’s death as Bellingham sends his mummy after her next since he knows that she framed him; although she attempts to fight back, the mummy rips open her back with a pair of scissors and stuffs her full of chrysanthemums! Andy’s suspicions about Bellingham’s involvement are only further confirmed at the sight of his sister’s bandage-wrapped corpse; he attacks Bellingham and ties him to a chair, easily dispatching the mummy using a battery-powered saw to cut off its leg and then slice its head in half. Threatening to burn Bellingham alive using his Master’s thesis for kindling, Andy settles for setting fire to the scroll and sends Bellingham packing. However, the maniacal Bellingham gets the last laugh, having tricked Andy with a fake scroll; he uses the real one to resurrect Lee and Susan as mummified corpses and sends them after Andy in the story’s finale.
Next is “Cat from Hell”, which is an adaptation of a Stephen King short story of the same name and was written for the film by Romero. Drogan (Hickey) is an incredibly wealthy, incredibly fail old man who is bound to a wheelchair but wields considerable power and influence thanks to having amassed a bountiful fortune in pharmaceuticals. Drogan lives alone in a vast mansion furnished with “everything you could want; everything you could ever want” but all the money in the world can’t quell his fear and paranoia regarding a particular black cat that haunts his house. Drogan hires hitman Halston (Johansen), a grim and professional man, to take care of his feline stalker; at first, Halston is incredulous and dismissive of the job but is convinced by the old man’s down payment of $50,000 to learn the story behind the cat. Drogan reveals that his company’s wonder drug was created by experimenting on and killing over fifty-thousand cats and he believes that the black cat is a supernatural form of karmic revenge sent to address the balance; his sister, Amanda (Dolores Sutton), was tripped by the cat and broke her neck falling down the stairs, the cat then suffocated Amanda’s friend, Carolyn (Alice Drummond), with its body while she slept, and then attacked the butler, Richard Gage (Mark Margolis), as he was driving to dispose of it, with each victim dying at precisely midnight. Though believing the old man is delusional, Halston takes his money, and the job, but finds that killing the cat isn’t as easy as he initially believes. The cat scratches him when he tries to break its neck, continually eludes and swipes at him throughout the night (clawing at his crotch at one point), and even appears to be immune to Halston’s high-powered bullet when he tries to shoot it. Having been driven into a near frenzy by the cat, Halston fires blindly but is terrified out of his mind when the cat leaps at him and forces its way down his throat and into his body! The next morning, Drogan arrives home to find Halston dead on the floor; then, as the damaged grandfather clock strikes twelve midnight, the cat emerges from Halston’s bloodied corpse and leaps onto Drogan’s lap, causing the hold man to literally die from fright.
The final segment, and quite possibly my favourite, is “Lover’s Vow”; Preston (Remar) is a struggling artist living in New York whose work is proving to be so unprofitable and unpopular that even his agent, Wyatt (Robert Klein) dumps him. Dejected and frustrated, he drowns his sorrows at his local bar; however, when the bar’s owner, Jer (Ashton Wise), offers to walk him home, the two are suddenly attacked in the alley outside the bar. Preston is horrified when he witnesses a large, winged gargoyle-like grotesque rip Jer’s hand off and then behead the bartender but, rather than kill Preston, it inexplicably offers him a deal: his life for his solemn vow that he will never speak of the horrors he has seen that night. Terrified out of his mind, Preston agrees and the creature leaves after clawing at his chest to seal the deal; disgusted at the gargoyle’s gruesome appearance, Preston comes across a stranger, Carola (Chong), in the aftermath and encourages her to get off the streets and go to his apartment to keep her safe from the beast. Enthralled by Preston’s artwork, Carola warms to him and cleans his wound and the two have a romantic tryst that leads to ten years of success and happiness for Preston thanks to Carola having connections that help his work take off. While a doting father to two young children and devoted husband, Preston is nonetheless haunted by memories of that night, and the creature, and tormented at having kept the truth from his beloved all these years. On the eve of the ten year anniversary of the night they met, Preston breaks down and confesses the truth, even showing Carola a statue and drawings of the creature but his guilt soon turns to horror as Carola transforms before his eyes into the same gargoyle that attacked him, her body splitting and tearing apart as the creature breaks free from its human form! To make matters worse, their children also transform into pint-sized gargoyles before Preston’s terrified eyes; heartbroken and distraught, Preston begs Carola to change back and professes his love but it’s not enough to undo his broken vow and the gargoyle rips his throat out with an anguished cry and flies off into the night, where it turns back into a stone statue with its two children.
The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964; 1985 to 1989) was a bit before my time (and wasn’t even on television when I was a kid, as far as I know) so I grew up watching The Outer Limits (1995 to 2001) instead; while I can’t recall right now when I first saw Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, I distinctly remember it being one of the key influences in my subsequent appreciation for anthology stories. The idea of having such wildly different short stories all in one movie was fascinating to me and it still is, as a storyteller myself. Each story has only a short amount of time to give a sense of who its characters are and make us care about them and I think Tales from the Darkside: The Movie does a pretty good job with that thanks to casting some young up-and-comers, noted character actors, and even a distinguished actor of stage and screen in William Hickey. Not only that, the film is bolstered by some pretty decent practical effects; while the mummy is a little stiff, the puppet cat looks a little fake, and the gargoyle is notably seeped in darkness to hide its flaws, each remains a frightening and startling monster thanks to how well the shorts tell their stories.
It’s not surprising that “The Wraparound Story” is the weakest part of the film; to be fair, it’s not really designed to anything more than provide a basic setup for why we’re being shown the other, superior short stories and in that regard it succeeds at being mildly entertaining, at least. However, while lacking the monsters, blood, and unsettling visuals of the other tales, the framing story seems much more geared towards youngsters than the rest of the film. I suppose the idea of a witch hiding in plain sight could be considered scary but Betty is so nice and the threat against Timmy is left implied rather than explicit, meaning the horror of the framing narrative is noticeably diminished for me compared to the other stories. While I consider “Lot 249” the weakest of the three main tales, even that proves to be an entertaining little horror romp thanks, largely, to the gory methods employed by Bellingham’s mummy. It’s pretty horrific to see it jam a twisted coat hanger up Lee’s nose and jerk his brains out, to say nothing of the graphic depiction of Susan’s back being violently cut open! Not only that but the short is bolstered by enjoyable performances by a young Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore; Slater, especially, shows so much charisma and likeability as Andy, who is easily able to cut up and subdue the mummy thanks to his being prepared, which only adds to the shocking twist of the short’s ending.
“Cat from Hell” is easily the most traditionally terrifying story of the film; for some reason, this short always reminds me of “The Raven” (Poe, 1845) in the simplicity of its gothic horror and the way the short builds tension is incredibly effective as a lot of shots are from the cat’s point of view and yet the story doesn’t hold back in depicting the supernatural feline’s horrific nature. Watching Halston’s unshakable arrogance crack be replaced by a fanatical obsession is very unsettling but the true highlight of the piece is obviously in the disturbing and grotesque way Halston meets his end. Yes, the puppets and dummies are pretty obvious but the darkness helps hide a lot of the effects and it’s still very grotesque not only to see the cat force its way down his throat but also crawl out through his mouth in a burst of blood. The way it simply leaps onto Drogan’s lap and hisses at him as the old man succumbs to his terror is particularly ghastly and is only augmented by the haunting sound of the clock striking twelve, the intense score, and the slanted angle of the camera. It’s a bit of a tie between “Cat from Hell” and “Lover’s Vow” for which story is my favourite but “Lover’s Vow” is definitely the most tragic and distressing of the stories; while you can argue that the twist ending is somewhat predictable, for me it’s easily the most memorable and impactful part of the film and helped make it a truly nightmarish horror story. The short is made all the more memorable by some fantastically ambitious animatronics and puppet work on the gargoyle; Carola’s visceral transformation into the beast is right up there with the disgusting body horror seen in The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986) and is made all the more heart-wrenching by Preston’s anguished scream at seeing his children turned into little monsters as a result of him just being honest with his wife.
It’s probably just the nostalgia talking but I have a real soft spot for Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. I remember being fascinated by it as a kid because I had only seen anthology narratives done in TV shows like The Outer Limits (or potentially this was my introduction to the concept, I honestly forget which is which) and I found the idea to be incredibly unique and substantial (it’s like getting four movies for the price of one!) Years later, and some time ago now, I got around to seeing Creepshow and don’t remember it resonating me in the same way as this film (though, to be fair, I really do need to give Creepshow another watch sometime), which had a profound influence on me as a horror fan and writer. The stories are incredibly bleak and intense considering their short length, and bolstered by some fun performances and gruesome use of both gore and ambitious practical effects. While there are other, better films and examples of these effects out there (and even from the same time period), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie does a pretty good job and standing the test of time not just through remarkably well shot animatronics and puppets but also in how raw and powerful its stories can be. While “The Wraparound Story” is easily skipped, even that helps to add a breather between each tale so you can catch your breath and prepare for the next gruesome tale, and I never fail to be haunted, moved, and disturbed by the stories on offer here, in particular “Cat from Hell” and “Lover’s Vow”, which are more than reason enough for you to give this one a try sometime.
Have you ever seen Tales from the Darkside: The Movie? Which of its short stories was your favourite and what did you think to the practical effects used to bring the horrors to life? Did you see the twist endings coming and which of the stories could you see expanded out into their own feature? Did you ever watch the television show? How would you rate this feature-length version of the show against other horror anthologies like Creepshow? Are you a fan of anthologies and would you like to see more? What horror films are you watching this month in preparation for Halloween? Whatever you think about Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, leave a comment by signing up or visiting my social media and pop back next Monday for more horror anthology shenanigans!